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Fall Of The AxFour prisoners are held in a concentration camp where they try to escape into their imaginations in response to the horrors they are unable to avoid. One prisoner narrates the imagined realities of the other three, as they all, one by one, finally succumb to the brutality of their captors.
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© Noel Gray 2016
Book cover: original photograph by Darell Gamble (on unsplash.com), digitally altered by Ondina Press
The Echo of My Life:I hear the fall of the ax and my life is over. I hear my voice screaming and my last words penetrate the air and join the sounds of all those who have screamed before me. They, and now I, march in the parade of the blameless dead, its ageless line our only monument. If this killing of the innocent cannot be stopped then an echo like mine will one day be all that is left of the Universe’s one true miracle. Time and space will then be silent, empty, soulless, un-admired, and creation will then be left to blind physics. Can someone stop this insanity? In these last moments of my life I am dreaming that you can. You may one day hear these words of mine. If you do then I pray you will hear more than just an echo, more than just a screech in the wind, more than crying dreams trapped in my mind as it vanishes forever: And what will you hear, what is it that I am screaming?
I am in a concentration camp where I, and many others like me are waiting to die. Such camps concentrate consciousness, giving fuel to our imaginations in their battle against the uncontrollable horrors that eat our minds every night. In the twilight of the twentieth century these camps are said to exist no longer. They do exist. They have become places with other names, disguised as ghettos, suburbs, provinces, and even larger parts of nations. Whatever they have become, and whatever they are now called, they all rely on concentration although most have given up their walls of wire. Their new walls are more durable. They are crafted from durability itself. They are the walls against difference, differences that are declared unholy, or worse, cancerous to the future health of the nation. Rogue cells in need of radical treatment.
The treatment we await is called ethnic cleansing: two words for murder. Two old words bleached of their dignity by being forced into a marriage neither deserve - two words crying out the close of the millennium, and ushering us to our graves. Words wearing masks always clear the path to the grave, bullets and knives their fleet messengers.
I am waiting, and while I do I listen to three daydreams - dreams that are interwoven but also, in a way, apart from each other. Each dream has its history and together they stand alongside another history; three brief histories in the company of a fourth, much longer one. Perhaps they are as much inside this fourth history as they are alongside it? I do not know, I cannot say. All I can hear are three daydreams; the fourth remains for someone else to speak and hear.
We were all spirited away from our homes and families, at night. Our neighbours silently and secretively watched us go as we quickly vanished like the steam from a kettle. Steam pushed out to disappear and begin its dissipation upward toward nothing. It is a telling point, a philosophical heritage no less - one we have been burdened with too long - that all heavens are somewhere else. I do not know if our neighbours thought we would go to heaven but I am sure they knew in their hearts we were headed toward nothing. Steam pushed out, the pressure released, the danger over. That is the main thing: why confuse modern social engineering with ancient metaphysics just because both deal with dissipation? We are gone for good, for their good not ours, that is the main thing.
Now, away from our society’s gaze we wait for the horror none of us can scarcely think about let alone know how to face. We huddle in the camp and grow to know each other as only people in such a place can. We are all sons and daughters of the European Enlightenment. We are its contemporary inheritors and so are our captors although they understand themselves as its pinnacle. A pinnacle shackled to a base that for them is too base; they long to be free of us. Our existence contaminates their private thoughts and gives rise to their public hatred. Their intelligence - and they are intelligent in a way all too familiar since the first demagogue learned to conquer by dividing - longs to be purified of us. To cleanse themselves of their insecurity and fear of difference: this is their faith, their impossible dream, and our real nightmare.
Our hut, little more than a cage, houses four prisoners. If it can be said we are lucky, then we are lucky to be in such small quarters rather than in the bigger buildings surrounding us. Cries rushing aimlessly through the air testify that these larger structures are massively overcrowded. Their huge outer shells boast a limitless capacity unmindful of the crowding of terror within their walls. The architecture of tyranny needs its grandness, its masonry. However, there is one architectural friend to be found in the compound; as I said, we four are lucky to be in a shed.
My companions are an old man, a young man, and a boy. It is just daybreak. The uncertain dawn cautiously peeks in the window and lights their faces. Each of them has the eyes of disappearance and its receding stare. Their eyes reflect mine so we know we are all fellow travellers with the same absent future.
Have you ever stared into living mirrors that reflect your mortality? I truly hope that you have not because such eyes are not only the windows of the soul. They are also the mirrored doors through which lost souls try vainly to escape their confinement. It is this mirrored exit to nowhere I speak about when I say my three inmates and I are all looking into each other’s eyes and see only the look in our own. We see our souls desperately trying to escape, four souls leaping between mirrors, trapped in their reflections.
After much staring and the corresponding gain in unwanted knowledge and despair, our eyes of disappearance look down at the floor. Its splintered surface mirrors our predicament; just another mirror, older than any of us but no less shattered. Having stared ourselves into its grain we then begin a blind traipse through our minds accompanied only by the sound of our thoughts being torn into ever smaller, meaningless splinters. Eventually our terror accelerates this ripping so profoundly that our imaginations rush to our defence.
One of my companions begins to speak. Before he gets fully underway my attention wavers for a few seconds and my mind thinks about itself:
Daydreams and nightmares - to illuminate these two forms of dreaming my mind has two lights. One light is bright, it comes in the day; the other resembles the soft spotlight that relentlessly seeks out actors on a dim stage. Its time is night. The real difference, however, is not wattage. It is shadow. My nightmares have no shadows. Everything in them is lit by the soft spotlight my mind supplies. Nothing escapes. I see everything. Seeing everything is what my nightmares count on to launder their wares.
My daydreams are different. Their brightness sometimes hides things, sometimes produces shadows to protect me. There, in the umbra of my thoughts, I may add poetry.
But what of the dark side of poetry, what does the poetry of the day become when it crosses over into the night? When it steps out of the daydream’s safe shadows into the shadow-less world of the nightmare? I do not know because it has no name, but it exists, that I know - daydreams and nightmares: there is a strange point where they meet; a kind of peculiar border where one becomes the other. Facing each other across this border neither are quite their usual selves. Their identities blur until what is left is a reality like no other. I think it is a place of terror - a place where terror can creep across a mind and enslave it. My companion’s voice breaks through my thoughts and sends them back to memory’s fog.
“When I become a young man,” says the Old Man, “I will be a gardener. My two sons are gardeners so naturally I would like to follow in their footsteps. Family tradition is very important because memories shared are memories spared. My sons taught me that and I intend to pass it on to my father when my time comes.”
“Why do you want to be a gardener?” I ask the frail creature in front of me. I do not know why he has reversed his family tree but it doesn’t seem to matter because his manner is unassuming, his voice barely audible. What ideas and beliefs can such a whisper of a man possess that need to be extinguished by our captors? Can he ever cry out with enough volume for anyone to hear? No one has listened to the old in our culture for so long it is hard to think they are about to start now by flocking to the side of this ghost. He looks a prosperous man so perhaps our captors think modern technology might come to his aid and spread his words, lift his voice to the point where the young can hear it. Do they think technology loves to garden, too? When did technology ever travel with the fallen except to hasten their departure?
“Because I want to be alone,” answers the Old Man. “It is only in aloneness that I can say all the things I want to say, but have never said. There are so many things I wanted to say but never did, well, only the solitude of a garden will give me a chance to speak them. Gardens are cryptic - are they not therefore the place tradition has always set the labyrinth, and are not all the things one wanted to say and be surely such a maze? And is not the labyrinth of desire always traversed individually, one flower at a time? The garden of the soul, even when the soul is in flower, even when one adorns oneself with the pollen of desires we all love to gather, well, does not such a place stand a little apart from the rush and noise of one’s daily life, of one’s predicament?”
History has convincingly demonstrated it has no solutions so I conform to this tradition and do not answer. Without realizing it I accidentally discover the one false answer that history, when pushed hard enough, never tires of using in its defence: silence.
“When I was much older than I am now,” continues the Old Man, amused by my inability to answer, “I dreamed of being forever in the company of others. I needed people around me. I was very gregarious, you see. The trouble was I was also garrulous. Naturally, because needs and habits are often bedfellows I had few friends that lasted. Everybody remembered me; some even loved me; but most could live without me. All of them certainly grew tired of listening to the prattle of my education, of my cultured conceit. Realizing this I finally had to face whether I could live with myself. I suspect in a very short time that question will be redundant.”
Gallows’ humour is a refuge at the end of time - but I decide not to say this as I, like the Old Man, want to be in his garden.
“But I see that I have wandered into the present,” he suddenly chuckles, as though he can read my thoughts. “Let me return to the future of my past.”
“I intend to grow a garden of flowers that not only have names but are also whole sentences. It will be a garden full of all those things I wanted to say but never did. A rose by any other name is, of course, the first sentence that springs to my mind, just as spring is the flower’s most favourite time. A rose by any other name; I love the brilliance and affirmation of life that shines forth from those six words. I sometimes cry when I realize I could never have been so clever, or so fortunate, to have been their author. Indeed, I have always read books to remind myself that I am not clever. I now know there will not be enough time for me to find another reason for reading. I also feel reading has betrayed me - the thorn in the rose, you might say. It has abandoned me with no answers, and left me on my own to grow a garden of words that no one will ever hear beyond this hut.”
His voice breaks for a moment; his words become inaudible and then cease. In this camp our words, like our eyes, have at least two sides to them. They journey out into space looking for the light but can easily return to show their darker side. Like eyes, some words even take their shadows with them. In the dark silence cast by such a shadow the other two inmates and myself gaze at the floor, its splintered and broken surface again reflecting our minds and hearts. Finally, with a Herculean effort, the Old Man regains his composure and his voice again rescues us from the blank stare of dead wood.
“A rose by any other name - can you not imagine all those people you have met - the flowers of the civilization you lived in and thought would protect you - can you not just see their faces now? There are dances that require the feet. There are others that require a nimble mind. I am speaking of the latter although I would have loved to be gifted in the former. So it is that the faces of these roses by so many other names now dance in front of my eyes as I plan my garden. Most of them have been my lovers, or my intended lovers, so I will tell you about them in biased words, with a gardener’s care, so to speak.”
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